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  • Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience at the Edge by Cressida J. Heyes
  • Helga Lenart-Cheng (bio)
Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience at the Edge
Cressida J. Heyes
Duke University Press, 2020, 192 pp. ISBN 9781478008262, $24.95 paperback.

In her latest book, philosopher Cressida Heyes explores various liminal states of consciousness and their personal and political implications. The book consists of case studies of “experience at the edge” (20), such as rape, sleep, drugs, passing out, and childbirth, interspersed with in-depth philosophical reflections on the personal meaning and cultural representations of these liminal states. Heyes proposes thinking about experience as a “normative category” (24), which delimits what counts and what does not count as experience. This opens up an entirely new field of investigation outside or alongside the “contours” (51) of these normative limits. Poking around the edges of experience is a timely exercise because contemporary culture is cornering people into an ambivalent position regarding experience. On the one hand, having and curating meaningful experiences has become an expectation for any personally responsible and politically committed individual. In fact, pushing beyond the boundaries of experience is seen a way to achieve greater freedom from the oppressive biopolitical normativization of life. On the other hand, the accelerated temporal regime of capitalism is constantly intensifying our sensory experiences. Everything is happening faster and louder, which becomes so exhausting that people sometimes want to “check out” and “experience nothing.” Checking [End Page 863] out or voluntarily renouncing one’s agency, however, undermines the epistemic value of experience and crumbles both our subjective and collective action plans. Experiencing thus becomes an ambivalent endeavor, making us complicit in the very power structures that constrain us.

By tying experience to the question of agency as it is exercised by or rejected by subjects in post-disciplinary societies, Heyes joins a larger contemporary conversation about experience and feminist politics. She engages with the traditions of empiricism and phenomenology to ask about the dual nature of experience as both a discursive product and an origin of subjectivity. But she also wants to push beyond the traditional philosophical questions to ask how the contemporary “transformation of conditions of experience also transforms possibilities for subjectivity” (9). Heyes combines her interest in the intimate life stories of individuals with sweeping structural analyses of political issues, while seeking to ground both her ethnographic and political research in a robust philosophical method. What makes this book such an immersive experience is that the author is trying to work out that method right in front of our eyes, pulling readers into the task. Heyes finds that “feminist theory lack[s] what we might call a method for describing experience, and perhaps especially embodied experience” (13). The method she seeks has to balance the personal with the political, the embodied with the historical, which she feels can best be done by combining genealogy with a feminist “posttranscendental” phenomenology. Such a combined method allows Heyes to weave back and forth “between the lived experience of an individual and her conditions of possibility; the constraints on what we can be and do, and how we engage and exceed those constraints” (19).

Chapter One sets up this double lens by looking at Foucault’s genealogical analysis of experience through his feminist critics’ prioritization of the epistemic and testimonial authority of lived experience. Whereas many feminist critics accused Foucault of epistemic arrogance in downplaying the lived experience of some of the female victims in his case studies, Heyes sides with a more recent group of critics, such as Timothy O’Leary, Lynne Huffer, and Johanna Oksala, who seek to recuperate Foucault’s phenomenological commitment to lived experience (40). Heyes underscores that the question of how discourse produces subjects and how subjects understand themselves are mutually implicated, and she cites Oksala’s Feminist Experiences to argue that “The tension between the objective and subjective dimension of experience is only a contradiction in Foucault’s thought to the extent that experience itself is paradoxical” (Oksala qtd. in Heyes 42).

Although Heyes herself makes no direct references to lifewriting scholarship, her interest in the discursive production of experiences closely aligns with lifewriting scholars’ study of the politics...